Why Saudi Arabia’s First Woman Director Only Makes Movies About Trailblazers

The heroines in Haifaa al-Mansour’s movies share the same antagonist: restrictive societies. Wadjda, the 1o-year-old Saudi protagonist of al-Mansour's first feature film, 2012's Wadjda, cleverly scrounges up money to buy a bike, despite being told bikes are forbidden for girls. Al-Mansour's follow-up film, Mary Shelley, may be a period piece set in 19th century England and France, but, like Wadjda, Mary is dissuaded from pursuing what she loves. Against all odds, Wadjda rides the bike, and Mary writes the book (and elopes, and has a scandalous life).
Al-Mansour is uniquely well suited to tell stories of women questioning society’s restrictions. As a girl in Saudi Arabia, Al-Mansour’s sense of the world was expanded while watching the movies available in her small town’s video store, like The Evil Dead and Snow White. “You feel you’re part of a bigger world every time you watch a movie,” she told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. With Wadjda, al-Mansour became the first person to ever shoot a movie within Saudi Arabia. She also became the country’s first woman director. Over the course of her career, Saudi Arabia’s policies toward the arts have loosened. This past April, the country lifted its 35-year ban on cinemas. Black Panther became the first commercial film shown in Saudi cinemas. Fittingly, al-Mansour's Mary Shelley will play in Saudi Arabia, too.
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We sat down with al-Mansour to talk Mary Shelley, fierce protagonists, and the challenges of shooting a movie in Saudi Arabia.
Refinery29: Mary Shelley is one of the most remarkable figures in English history. After making one movie set in Saudi Arabia, what drew you to rendering the author of Frankenstein’s story to the big screen?
Haifaa al-Mansour: "When they sent me the script, I wasn’t sure. I thought, 'She’s an Englishwoman, and it’s a period drama.' When I read the script, it was amazing to know more about her and see how much she struggled to have her own voice. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know much about her, even though I consider myself a feminist, and I was a literature major. I thought she needed that recognition. As women, we need to celebrate figures like her because it gives us a solid legacy to lean on when we’re moving forward. I felt immediately that I needed to tell her story."
It’s interesting that you bring up legacy. Mary Shelley had the legacy of her feminist mother, who died when she was 11 days old. Aside from that, she didn’t have other role models to look to.
"I’m sure she was expected to write something like Jane Austen. Even if people didn’t say it, that kind of literature is what they expected from a woman. But she excelled and did something totally different on her own — something that remains original today."
Mary Shelley defied expectations in terms of what she wrote, and very much in terms of how she lived. In many ways, Shelley was punished for defying expectations. She was disowned by her father, and after her husband died, she was ostracised from society. How do women like Shelley pay the price for defying social norms?
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"In more conservative societies, women are supposed to carry the honour of the family. I think it’s important for women to rebel, even if it’s hard. It’s [how] to pave the way forward for the generations to come. When women do something for the first time, they go one step that all women can take, going forward. But not everybody can pay the price. A lot of people don’t want to. That’s why we have people who are willing to challenge those norms and open the doors. That’s why we need to recognise them. It is hard to go that way."
You’re uniquely well-suited to make Mary Shelley. You, too, are a trailblazer — you’re the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Did you relate to Mary’s story?
"Definitely. I know what it means to be dismissed. I know what it means to be underestimated and taken for granted. It hurts. I felt that —when I made movies in Saudi Arabia, people were laughing because we don’t have any films. It was like a joke.
"I did some writing in the description of the third act when Mary goes to the publisher and is spoken down to. This is something that felt very modern and current. Women being dismissed happened a really long time ago, and it’s still happening."
How did shooting Mary Shelley compare to making Wadjda in Saudi Arabia?
"I’m not worried about the police coming and stopping me. Or worrying that this is a conservative neighbourhood, and we need to leave very quickly. Mary Shelley wasn't that kind of challenge. But we had different kinds of challenges, too, like the weather, and our shoot was fragmented because of financing. But it’s not like being so stressed and having the weight of censorship on your shoulder. I was grateful to enjoy being on set with the actors and enjoy the creative part."
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Do you plan on making other movies in Saudi Arabia?
"Yes, in September. We’re shooting a film called The Perfect Candidate. It’s about a young female doctor who decides to run for politics. It’s a segregated culture, so of course she’s not allowed to interact with people. Instead, she has to do conference calls. I’m really excited to start casting very soon."
How has Saudi Arabia’s relationship to movies and moviemaking changed over the course of your lifetime and career?
"Now, they opened cinemas in Saudi Arabia. Before, movie theatres were illegal. I think Saudi is moving a lot toward being a normal country. When I was growing up, listening to music was forbidden. They would tell you in school if you listened to music you’d go straight to hell because music corrupts your soul. Now, music is celebrated everywhere, there are movie theatres, and women will start driving soon. There’s so much happening. Saudi Arabia is becoming a more normal country. It’s important for a country like Saudi Arabia to be normal. It sets a tone for the rest of the Muslim world, and hopefully that will encourage more tolerance. We need a lot more music and films and fun in that part of the world."
You serve on a board that oversees the cultural and artistic development of Saudi Arabia. Are there any new initiatives that you’re excited about?
"I’m excited about bringing films from Saudi and helping your filmmakers make stories about themselves and the world they come from. Hopefully, we make stories about people that the world can appreciate and can make us more tolerant."
Mary Shelley is in cinemas on July 6.
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